Michael de Podesta: Humanity's Greatest Achievement

Michael is 49 years old and lives in Teddington with his wife and two children. He works at the National Physical Laboratory and is currently constructing the most accurate thermometer ever made with a view to re-defining the unit of temperature. In his spare time he presents a course about Science to the public called Protons for Breakfast. He loves his work.

Why do I work in Science? There are many answers to this question concerning upbringing, personal disposition and simple chance. I doubt that you are interested in my background. However, aged 49 I have had a breakthrough in my understanding of why I am fascinated by science. I think it actually transcends the other more haphazard reasons and I would like to share it with you. I continue to find my work fascinating because - and this is so important I’m going to make a special paragraph for it - because…

Science is humanity’s greatest achievement

Just two things to clarify there: what I mean by Science, and what I mean by Humanity’s greatest achievement.


By Science I refer to at least two quite different things. Firstly I refer to the body of knowledge that we have sifted from our experience using the filter of scientific procedure. This kind of knowledge has a different quality from our normal knowledge of the world. It is less susceptible to change or cultural re-interpretation. However it tends to be rather simple. For example, a piece of scientific knowledge which is in my head at the moment is the fact that reasonably pure copper at room temperature has a thermal expansion coefficient of 16.5 parts per million of length for each degree Celsius of temperature rise. This fact is the same no matter what my world view.

By Science I also refer to the world view which links these facts. If the facts above are the events in a movie, then this world view is the narrative, the story line that links them. What fascinates me is that there is actually only one story line. The story line is always rational, and while that might seem like it would be boring, in fact it is quite the opposite. It’s a fascinating and continually developing story and I love the way it resolves what can appear to be conflicting narratives. And the storyline is still developing. Long before the so-called ‘Web 2.0’ collaborative phenomena, Science was there already. Science is not the achievement of one person but the collective creation many. One or two great (or lucky) scientists, many many workaday scientists (like me), and normal people who pay for the endeavour to continue through their taxes. We should all be proud.

Humanity’s greatest achievement

Science is not humanity’s only achievement. Far from it. Our language, our appreciation of the situation of our lives, our cultural embodiments of this understanding across so many years and cultures can astound. Our technological and engineering achievements are breathtaking, from pyramids to microchips. But the collective body of scientific knowledge together with the scientific world view allows us to understand all our own experiences. It is not about results in a laboratory: it is about understanding the day-to-day phenomena in our lives in a more profound way than ever before in history.

While not belittling humanity’s other achievements, Science transcends them all.


  1. Bob the Chef
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 1:31 AM | Permalink | Reply

    "Science" with an uppercase "S"?

    Science is not a thing, but an act.

    One timeline? Always rational? What does that even mean? Are you getting in over your head making statements outside your domain of specialty, about the history of science? Eek!

  2. Michael De Podostre
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 3:22 PM | Permalink | Reply


  3. Celia Mulqueen
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 9:01 AM | Permalink | Reply

    This reads beautifully........
    Thank you - I am inspired!

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